is virus of the mind an acceptable source in an academic essay?

A couple of students are writing about how remix videos work as memes, and how they spread, and have asked whether Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind is an acceptable academic source to use in their essays. I haven’t read Virus of the Mind yet, but from its presentation, it’s pitched as popular science. You can certainly use it as a source, but obviously not as your only source. It seems that Virus of the Mind has a fairly extreme argument, if the first line of the editorial review is accurate:

If you’ve ever wondered how and why people become robotically enslaved by advertising, religion, sexual fantasy, and cults, wonder no more. It’s all because of “mind viruses,” or “memes,” and those who understand how to plant them into other’s minds.

“Robotically enslaved”? My goodness. That’s even stronger than the metaphors Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, and Ana Domb Krauskopf argued against in their report on Spreadable Media. Jenkins argue that biological metaphors such as “meme” (based on evolution and genetical replication) and “virus” cast the people who enjoy and pass on cool stuff they find as having no agency at all. I disagree with the way Dawkins’ original article about memes is portrayed here, but certainly think that thinking of regular people who enjoy cute cat videos as being “robotically enslaved” is a little over the top. Perhaps the reviewer is not describing the full argument in Virus of the Mind very well, though.

Even Dawkins, who invented the term meme, wouldn’t go with the “robotically enslaved” argument, I think. He finishes his chapter proposing the idea of memes by pointing out that humans have conscious foresight and rational minds, and are actually able to choose according to long term goals rather than just going with the short term gratification of genes and memes that, for instance, may tend not to encourage altruism and peace:

One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and, if you alllow the speculation of this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators. (..) We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. (..) We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators.

So sure, go ahead and use Virus of the Mind in your papers, but think critically about it, and for goodness sakes, discuss the assertions made in it, using the skepticism of Jenkins and of Dawkins and perhaps others as well. You may end up agreeing with Brodie, but you have to show that you’re doing so because you’ve thought carefully about it, and that you understand the counter-arguments and possible problems with his thesis. Also make sure you present Brodie appropriately – what are his credentials? I only quickly googled him but it looks like he developed Microsoft Word (!), is a professional poker player and has written self-help books – so he’s not exactly a scientist or researcher? If you’re going to argue strongly for Brodie you may need to find more supporting sources. He may well refer to some good ones in his book.

23. October 2009 by Jill

Comments (2)

  1. "You can certainly use it as a source, but obviously not as your only source."

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